- Anti-graft agency prioritises asset seizure.
FOUR years after Nigeria’s leading anti-graft agency, the Economic Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), declared the former Chairman of the Nigeria Social Insurance Trust Fund (NSITF) Ngozi Olejeme wanted, the politician is still at large.
This is despite the EFCC’s alliance with international security organisations such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the International Police (Interpol), among others.
Olejeme was accused of offences bordering on diversion of public funds, criminal conspiracy and abuse of office while managing affairs of the NSITF during the administration of the former President Goodluck Jonathan.
She allegedly stole N69 billion belonging to the Federal Government in connivance with a former Managing Director of the Fund Umar Munir Abubakar, through fraudulent contract awards.
“During Mrs. Olejeme’s tenure as aforestated, she collected a cumulative sum of USD $48,485,127.00 from Chuka Eze (her Account Officer in First Bank Plc), Henry Sambo Ekhasomi (the Director of Finance of NSITF), Aliyu Zubairu (Director of Corporate Affairs -NSITF), Adebayo Aderibigbe and Abubakar Umar.
“The said USD $48,485,127.00 represents the dollar equivalent of kickbacks paid to BDC (bureau de change) by contractors/consultants of NSITF on Mrs. Olejeme’s instructions as well as payments to the BDC operators directly from NSITF account,” the EFCC alleged in a supporting affidavit presented before a Federal High Court sitting in Abuja.”
In September 2017, she was declared wanted by the commission, but she later faulted the allegation. Since then till Wednesday, August 11, it has been a back and forth legal battle with no clear conviction in sight.
Olejeme’s case is not peculiar. There are several individuals and politically exposed persons who have been on the EFCC wanted list for years without prosecution or convictions.
One of such cases is Government Ekpemupolo (a.k.a Tompolo), accused to have diverted N34 billion and N11.9 billion belonging to the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA). The accused, who hails from Okerenkoko, Gbaramatu Kingdom, Warri South-West LGA of Delta State, is still ranked among the wanted persons.
Abdulrasheed Maina, a former Chairman of the Pension Reform Task Team (PRTT), has also been on the wanted list for years but as of the time of filing this report, he is yet to be convicted.
In December 2020, Maina was extradited from the Niger Republic to commence his trial. He is facing N2 billion money laundering allegation.
Beyond these pending cases in the EFCC are former lawmakers and governors who also have corruption cases still hanging on their necks, yet have found their ways into the ninth National Assembly. The ICIR earlier reported such individuals.
EFCC’s tradition of media hype
Often times, the EFCC has been accused of embarking on media trials rather than collecting hard evidence before effecting arrests and prosecutions.
In October 2020, the Senate Committee on Anti-Corruption and Financial Crimes warned the commission to stop media trials of accused persons under probes but conduct 90 per cent investigations before arrest.
“Media hype must stop. If you want to be effective, forget the media, do the work and let your work speak for you,” Chairman of the Committee Suleiman Kwari told the EFCC at the 9th Senate Legislative Anti Corruption Strategy Implementation Session held at the National Assembly Complex, Abuja. Ninety percent of investigation should be done before an arrest is effected.”
Nigeria has lost billions through regular awards of spurious contracts across the Ministries, Departments, and Agencies (MDAs) of government.
The contracts are awarded virtually on annual basis through constituency projects, recurrent or capital expenditures.
The EFCC and the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) have acknowledged the challenge.
The latter has resolved to set up special desks across the MDAs to ensure due diligence in contract awards while the former established anti-corruption clubs in schools. But these moves appear ineffective as the corruption rate in the country has continued to spike.
Meanwhile, The ICIR contacted the EFCC’s Head of Media and Publicity Wilson Uwujaren to verify likely reasons Olejeme’s prosecution had lingered for about four years without conviction, but he was equivocal in his response.
He was asking questions instead of providing answers to questions.
When asked why Olejeme remains on the commission’s wanted list for years without conviction, he queried what her inclusion in the wanted list database implied.
Declaring an accused person ‘wanted’ does not amount to successful prosecution and conviction, he was told.
Uwujaren went further to query the current findings of The ICIR.
The ICIR pushed further to query the delay in arresting Olejeme since the commission has an existing partnership with Interpol, but the conversation was marred by what appeared to be a sudden network glitch.
Repeated efforts to reach Uwujaren since then proved abortive.
He ignored subsequent calls and messages sent to him.
Though the Nigerian Police has a commissioner for Interpol that could help track fugitives of the law, it remains uncertain how EFCC works with this network.
EFCC shows more interest in property seizure than actual conviction?
Olejeme’s lawyer and former surety Monday Ubani had earlier accused the EFCC of giving preference to seizing his client’s asset, rather than the actual conviction.
The former vice president of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) argued that the commission had anchored its prosecution on simple assertions from a single witness, which he described as mere hearsay.
It is not certain if this was what the anti-graft body had grappled with, but the EFCC convinced the court as to why properties belonging to the accused should be forfeited to the Federal Government. In July, the court finally granted an interim order seeking the forfeiture of 46 properties linked to Olejeme.
Meanwhile, on March 19, 2019, Ubani was arrested and detained alongside Sen. Christopher Ania for failing to produce the former NSITF chairman, after the accused had been granted administrative bail.
Ubani said the commission, under the leadership of former EFCC boss Ibrahim Magu, had grilled Olejeme for about eight hours and was eventually detained for nine days before the bail.
She allegedly absconded after the EFCC raided her home, a situation that led to Ubani’s earlier arrest.
Lawyers, CSO speak
A lawyer Lauretta Ugwoke, in her reaction, said the situation could be due to insufficient evidence to get the accused convicted. The trend, she noted, was not peculiar to anti-graft agencies in the country except that it had almost become a norm in the Nigerian system.
“Sometimes, it is the bureaucracy in the agency. Perhaps, somebody might have been bribed, so they use the delay strategy. You know the Nigerian factor,” she remarked, saying that an official might have evidence which could be used to prosecute the matter but would hide it to ensure it would not see the light of the day because he or she was familiar with the defendant – more of frustrating the case,” she stated.
Ugokwe also identified the transfer of a presiding judge as a likely reason cases often took longer time before convictions. “Once a judge is transferred, the case starts afresh.”
The defendant, she recalled, could also reject not to be prosecuted by a particular judge if he or she felt the judge was biased.
Another lawyer Abdul Mahmud attributed the delayed justice to several factors, including the lack of political will.
He also blamed the delayed prosecution on the non-independence of the EFCC and ICPC.
“Once prosecuting agencies are not independent, and listens to the political mandates of the political leadership of the country, it blocks the prosecutorial ability of the agencies, and that’s why we have delays….”
“We have reached an unfortunate junction where politics guides law instead of law guiding politics. We know what the law provides that once an accused person is brought before the court, proper charges must be made against the person, facilities must be availed against the person, such as legal representation. The charges against the person must be within the law,” Mahmud asserted.
But speaking specifically on Olejeme’s case, the lawyer said the EFCC should be able to arrest the politician considering the commission’s alliance with Interpol, except the former NSITF boss resided on a different planet.
“If the EFCC is really interested in bringing her to trial, Interpol can fish her out from wherever she is because we have an inter-jurisdictional treaty in getting the accused person to where they are being tried to come and answer to charges brought against them, except Ngozi is in Mars or outer planet.”
Another lawyer, Emmanuel Ike attributed the delay to anomalies in the criminal justice system. While citing situations where lawyers also use different technicalities to delay prosecutions, he said accused persons often hide under the veil of a plea bargain to evade convictions.
Aside, he emphasised that the moment the EFCC is answerable to the president, it cannot be genuinely independent.
The Executive Director of Progressive Impact Organization for Community Development (PRIMORG), Austin Agbonsuremi, in his remarks, identified several reasons for the usually delayed prosecutions and convictions.
As mentioned by other experts, the judicial process is thronged with several challenges. The judges, he said, could be loaded with at least 20 cases a day, some of which might include civil cases, marital and criminal cases. He said it could be problematic for the judges to make sound judgments.
Agbonsuremi said most cases filed in court are not well investigated. According to him, the EFCC would oftentimes file cases in court while investigations were still ongoing, thus, could affect the case outcome.
Besides the problem of autonomy, he identified funding challenges, experienced manpower, and access to modern investigative facilities that could aid in the successful prosecution of cases.
As part of his recommendations, judges should switch to digital technologies and processes in analysing evidence submitted for a case rather than the conventional method of handwriting.
“Corruption pervades the judicial system. Files are stolen in court, suspects are transferred without court notice. Testifiers are killed as the case may be. The idea of I am sick and I want to travel abroad should be balanced. They should designate a special hospital where a sick accused person could get a real medical report, not just any medical statement from any hospital.”
“Separate Office of the Attorney-General of the Federation from the Ministry of Justice just like the Auditor-General’s Office. We must ensure that nobody has the power to impose anyone to chair the EFCC, ICPC, and the Attorney-General’s office.”
Insulate ICPC, EFCC from politics
Lawyers who shared their views with The ICIR suggested a more efficient judicial system. The lawyers called for special courts to prosecute corruption-related cases. They also pushed for the independence of the anti-graft agencies and the need for political office holders to stay true to fighting corruption in the system.
Ike said true autonomy of the anti-graft agency would greatly restore public confidence in the system. He advised the need to fast-track corruption-related cases in court.
“Reform the agency and the provision that allows the President to control the EFCC should be removed.”
Mahmud also asked the Federal Government to shun the idea of appointing politicians into boards of prosecuting agencies such as the EFCC and the ICPC.
He said appointments should be made based on merit, competence rather than favouritism.
Nevertheless, he emphasised where there is political unwillingness for the anti-graft agencies to do their jobs, the country would continue to struggle with the challenges.
“If you are appointing people of integrity to head the EFCC for instance, the Senate would still need to make the confirmation. And some members of the Senate have cases before the commission. They are the ones to confirm the ICPC chairman as well. So, I think we need constitutional reordering of our country. Otherwise, how do we bring integrity to the process of appointment?” Mahmud queried.